Abbas demands full settlement halt

Abbas Stop construction

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stuck by his demand Monday for a complete halt in West Bank settlement building before resuming peace talks with Israel. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Abbas said the two were agreed to keep insisting on a complete settlement freeze, but stated that the Palestinians would neither oppose the renewal of talks nor set preconditions. "We have said and are still saying that at the time when settlement construction is stopped and the international legitimacy is recognized, we will be ready to resume the negotiations," Abbas said. The leaders' comments came after Egypt confirmed on Monday that a US peace plan includes Israeli guarantees for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within two years. A spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told the Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper that according to the plan, both sides are to exchange formal letters dealing with mutual guarantees. Top Egyptian officials head to London and Washington this week to discuss ideas on reaching a comprehensive peace deal. Egypt has been attempting to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians. Following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's talks with Mubarak a week ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu appeared serious about resuming negotiations. Gheit repeated that view on Monday. "Our position is that the (Netanyahu's) ideas are taking the Israeli position forward," he told reporters. "This is a protracted process and needs patience, clarity and prudence so that the Palestinians do not find themselves in a difficult position." A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss ongoing policy, said the ideas included all the major disagreements that have scuttled talks before - final borders, settlements and the status of east Jerusalem. Mohammed Dahlan, a top official in Abbas' Fatah party, said there was "a base of some optimism." "We value the Egyptian efforts and hope these efforts will be concluded in a plan or package," he said. Abbas said Netanyahu's ideas for restarting talks would be discussed during the Egyptian team's visit. "I don't want to judge ideas that look foggy now. They will be judged after the Egyptian delegation returns from Washington ... and things get clearer then," he said. Abbas arrived Sunday to Egypt for a series of meetings in Sharm e-Sheikh with Mubarak, as part of a diplomatic sweep of the regions which is to include Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey. The two main issues that Abbas is to engage in on his diplomatic tour are efforts to reconcile with Hamas, and the renewal of the stalled peace process with Israel. He arrived in Egypt from Jordan, where he was believed to have held a secret meeting with an unidentified important personality. Abbas met with Suleiman on Sunday and discussed with him the prospects of resuming peace talks, as well as efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas. Khaled Abu Toameh and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.